Seeds of Life
by John Taine
"De Soto began to conceive a mild contempt for the science of electricity as expounded in college texts and popular treatises. In some indefinable way it all seemed an old legend dimly remembered from a forgotten life. The rudimentary knowledge of the universal forces of nature was as instinctive in him as breathing. Had he not 'always' recognized instantly the hidden interplay of natural things as intuitively as he perceived the nonday sun?" (p 48)
One of the many themes of science fiction is that of the super human ... people who have developed or evolved abilities beyond the norm. These super abilities can be explained by natural causes, intentional augmentation or even accident. Seeds of Life is an early twentieth century examplar of this theme.
The novel concerns the creation of a superior human using radiation. The author uses his knowledge of electronics and the inexorable logic of science to build up steadily mounting horror. For Bork, a lab assistant, accidentally discovers a secret of short x-ray waves that can mutate life -- pushing it millions of years ahead or equal millenniums back. He mutates almost overnight into a superman with a mind beyond any of the scientists for whom he had previously worked (it is reminiscent of the Keyes" Flowers for Algernon in this respect). He changes his name and uses his new powers to create amazing technological results, but the same accident also leads to other mutations including an incident where some brown hen eggs revert and what emerges is the common reptile-dinosaur ancestor of birds and mammals. His world becomes even more complicated when his mutations start to wear off and he comes to realize that what he’s set in motion is wrong, but he also can’t stop it.
The plot takes several more twists and turns, but that is not why I enjoyed this novel. Rather it is the imaginative take that it presents of the super human theme. In this it is an excellent early example and compares favorably with the work of later writers including my favorite, A. E. Van Vogt. His novel, Slan, considered a classic of this theme, used the concept of super-beings to explore the themes of racism, prejudice and what it means to be human. Other examples of the use of this theme include Philip Wylie's Gladiator (1930), Olaf Stapledon's Odd John (1935), Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human (1953) and Frederick Pohl's Man Plus (1976).
The critic Everett F. Bleiler found the opening segment of Seeds of Life to be "fascinating," but that as a whole "it suffers from formal defects, inadequate development at times, superfluity at others, weak characterizations, and problems with tone." Still, he concluded, "the novel is well worth reading for its virtues." And I would agree, particularly in that its' virtues in its consistent pursuit of the super human theme make this a book that holds the science fiction aficionado's interest to this day.
Seeds of Life by John Taine. Dover Books, 1966 (1931)